by Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali
read by Kaitie Radel
- This story has not been previously published
- Discuss on our forums.
- For a list of all Escape Pod stories, authors and narrators, visit our sortable Wikipedia page
about the author…
about the narrator…
Kaitie Radel is a music education student and aspiring voice actress, has been voice acting as a hobby for two years. In addition to this project, she has participated as both a VA and administrator in several fan projects such as The Homestuck Musical Project and Ava’s Melodies. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
by Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali
“Orani, tell Boris what is wrong.”
I told Boris about Enoch and our shared dreams, about how he abandoned me.
“He said I was frigid,” I confided, my head on Boris’s shoulder, his hand stroking my back.
Boris nodded, “What else?”
“He said that for all the credits in the system, I would never learn how to love.”
I’d been drowning in loneliness when I contracted Boris to help me recover from losing Enoch. After two years of long distance communication, Enoch had traveled from Earth to be with me, only to later decide it was a mistake. “You’re not the human being I thought you were,” he said, which was rich because he wasn’t a human being at all.
When I was spent of energy and tears, Boris lifted me into his arms, like steel support beams, and carried me to the bathroom. He undressed and washed me. He kissed my tearful eyes. He rubbed my skin with oil. With Boris I finally felt warm and safe.
“Orani, you are worthy and lovable. I want you to know this,” he murmured to me as he carried me back to bed. “I want you to feel like a little baby.”
“I don’t remember what that’s like,” I told him.
I turned onto my side and assumed the position for spooning.
“Please. Come hold me.” I hated that I sounded so desperate.
It climbed onto the bed behind me and pulled me against its body. It laced its legs with mine, stroked my side, and nuzzled my neck.
“Tighter,” I whispered. “Closer.”
My cuddle bot acquiesced, but it still didn’t feel right. It wasn’t warm and fleshy. It didn’t quite curve and meld into my body. Its breath wasn’t moist on the back of my neck.
And I could see its intricate metallic phalangeal joints through the tear in its rubber skin.
“Enough,” I said, trying not to sound exasperated, like I was near tears. I don’t know why it mattered. It wouldn’t have noticed or cared. Its original programming had been wiped and the newly installed algorithms did not include complicated emotional recognition. That programming had been too expensive.
Empathy was more than I could afford.
It promptly released its hold on me and sat up. Its gaze was calm and disinterested.
“Shall I prepare dinner now?” Its voice sounded human enough. The inflections were right.
But it wasn’t Boris.
I repurposed the used cuddle bot into…well, I wanted it to be whatever Boris was. Everything I never realized I was missing until Boris.
I couldn’t afford to complete its reprogramming, but I decided to put away a few credits each month to purchase new mods. It wasn’t Boris, but it did provide some benefits.
It cooked for me, although its repertoire was uninspired. It kept my pod-flat tidy. It initiated conversations with me, asked me how I felt, how my day at work had been, although the expression on its face never seemed to be one of true interest.
It told me it loved me, but I could not believe.
“You have received two messages. Shall I play them for you?”
I swallowed, barely tolerating the stir fry protein cubes and rehydrated vegetables.
“Your boss, Kishore Ming.”
Not who I’d hoped.
I’d been avoiding my boss for several days. I was doing my best. I even made the short run to Deimos. By the time I returned home I was sick with anxiety, but I didn’t complain.
“What does she want?”
“She wanted to remind you about your appointment with Dr. Miskal. She also mentioned a clause in your contract…”
“Enough,” I snapped.
It cocked its head. “It appears the price of addiction is quite exorbitant. Yes?”
Its programming included sarcasm. I made a mental note to readjust the levels.
“Delete the messages.” I wiped my mouth on the back of my hand. “I think I’ll go out for a while.”
As I dressed, my cuddle bot spoke to me from the hall outside my closet-sized bathroom. “I believe it is time that I remind you that Boris’s Bar is off limits.”
I’d programmed it to remind me of this whenever I was about to leave my flat.
This time, I just didn’t care.
I walked to Boris’s Bar, through more than three kilometers of winding corridors, most of which were underground. Boris’s Bar was situated right on the crust, half of it peeking up above the surface. From some parts of the joint, one could see the rising red slope of the Elysium Mons.
I sat down at the bar and ordered the peppermint package. It was still early, only 18:30, and the Wednesday night crowd had yet to filter in. The quiet energy of Boris’s Bar matched the moody music piped through ceiling mounted speakers.
Calva placed my order on the counter in front of me, a bottle of peppermint water and a can of peppermint O2. It was the cheapest refreshment package sold at Boris’s and it allowed for unlimited refills. I downed half the bottle of water in one go and belched.
Calva appraised me with bright violet eyes. “You’re looking a bit thin, honey. You been taking care of yourself?”
I shrugged. I hadn’t been.
“My boss has been giving me the blues,” I said.
I stripped the nasal cannula from the sterile airtight packaging, inserted the prongs into my nares, and then threaded the bifurcated O2 line around each ear. I closed my eyes and inhaled until I almost felt like coughing.
“Is that super massive still treating you like a drone?”
Calva’s eyes flicked briefly toward the back of the bar where the hall leading to Boris’s comfort suite was located. The line of people waiting their turn with Boris was already edging out into the common area. I restrained the urge to follow her gaze and swallowed back the heat of longing with another sip of water.
“Ever since Guy got married and quit to be a house husband, my boss has been pressuring me to take his old run full time.”
“The one to Io?”
“Yeah. That’s the one. She knows damn well I’m in no condition to make that run.” I finished my water and signaled for a refill.
There was a time when I didn’t mind doing the solitary three month runs to Jupiter’s largest moon. And it didn’t hurt that the Io runs paid three times the standard transport rate.
Enoch and I had planned to buy a cozy residential multistage ship where we’d raise our family. He’d have an office where he could write and do his crafts and I would have a fully equipped geoponics suite where I would grow all the food our family needed.
We were ambitious and we had stars in our eyes.
Calva placed the second bottle on the counter in front of me. She leaned forward on her elbows.
“I understand how you feel, wanting to go to Boris, yet knowing that if you do…“
“…your life might fall apart,” I completed.
Calva arrived at Elysium Mons on a handicapped cruiser years earlier when the colony had just been established. She was a pass around bed warmer for the crew, an empty lover with her own needs. For all the affection they gave her, aside from tending their own desires, you’d think they would have gone with a lower end model, one without algorithms that require reciprocation for optimal performance. They nearly broke her.
Her compensation for more than two months of service was a free ride to the new colony and enough credits to purchase a single person flat. Once here, she tried working in her designated field, but few know the distinct difference between a love-bot and a sex-bot.
Boris arrived a couple years after that to service those who had the credits to spend and who found the loneliness of the brand new colony too much to bear. Calva went to Boris after so much time being a lover without actually experiencing love. It could be argued that her resulting obsession was a worse outcome.
Calva tended the bar at Boris’s in order to maintain proximity to him. She once told me, “If this was merely love, it would be beautiful and admirable, but it isn’t. I need Boris, even if it’s just being able to see his face from time to time, because if I don’t, I feel like I am dying.”
Calva reached beneath the bar and produced a bowl of wasabi roasted coffee beans. She disengaged the meter on the bowl and winked. “Eat as much as you like. No charge. Okay, honey?”
She planted a soft kiss on my forehead before leaving to tend a group of raucously happy kids who’d just arrived from the local intergalactic college.
I sighed. Not a credit had been spared on her programming. She was nearly perfect.
I left the bar and went to sit up front by the stage. The Twi-pods, three legged twins from back Earth-side, took to the stage beneath whirling green lights. They contorted themselves into impossible positions, like helium balloons twisted into the shapes of old Earth animals. They were truly amazing, especially the blond twin, who belted out the Martian anthem while helicoptering on her head.
In the end, the Twi-pods couldn’t keep my attention. I kept glancing back at the line of people waiting for Boris. They were an emotionally homogenous group, sad and desperate, yet giddy with anticipation.
Watching them awoke the deep down hunger in me and I felt like I was the victim of some sadomasochistic torture. So, I decided to get a better look.
I wandered down the hall past the line of soul hungry people and around the corner to the viewing room, a booth built flush against the wall. I swiped my card to pay for the Five for Five package. While I waited for my card to clear, I watched the looping holo-advert, where a lovely plumpish epicene with bronze skin and blue hair spoke to me in a lilting singsong tone.
Unable to afford the True Love Package? Or don’t have time for long lines? Don’t let that stop you. Everyone deserves to experience the kind of love that only Boris can provide. The Five for Five package is just the answer for the particularly financially strapped patron, or the unloved on a budget. Pay five ticks for five minutes and watch Boris show love to someone else.
I already knew that watching would be torture.
Once my payment was approved, the lock disengaged and the door of the viewing room popped open. The scent of patchouli wafted out and in Pavlovian response, my muscles loosened and my scalp tingled. The image of Boris’s meaty fingers slicked with oil came unbidden to my mind and an irrepressible moan escaped my throat. I shook my head as if in doing so I could shake loose the memories.
It almost worked.
I took the center seat in the dark alcove in front of the viewing window. The room was warm and decorated in dark velour. The chairs were snug but comfortable, made of heated gel that contoured to the shape of my body. I felt wrapped in a perpetual embrace. And that scent of patchouli.
The point was to heighten the voyeur’s vicarious experience. It was wholly inadequate. No vicarious experience could ever match the original. That was the problem. I’ve been chasing that high for the last seven months.
I pushed the button on the armrest and the viewing window faded from black opaque to clear.
Boris was even more beautiful than I remembered.
Bald as an egg and naked but for a pair of white satin shorts, the bear of a man reclined on an enormous circular bed amidst a mound of fluffy white bedding. His warm olive skin glowed beneath the soft yellow overhead lighting. He smiled to someone outside of the range of the window and held out a hand.
“Come to Boris,” he drawled sweetly.
A small man, pale and peevish, rushed forward as he simultaneously stripped off his own clothes. When he was down to his shorts, he climbed into bed and wrapped his wiry arms as far around Boris’s girth as they could go. Boris cradled the man against his side and pulled the downy comforter over both of them.
“My sweet, sweet baby.” Boris kissed is forehead. “Tell Boris what is wrong.” He lovingly stroked the man’s bare back. The effect was that of opening the levee of a great damn. The man sobbed inconsolably against Boris’s neck.
“Let it all out, love. You are now safe. Be like a baby.” Boris pressed his lips to the man’s mouth, neck and shoulder and squeezed him even tighter. If not for the stark contrast between Boris’s toasty tones and the thin man’s sun starved pallor, they would have appeared to be one.
Boris rocked and cooed and caressed until the small man’s sobs eased to hiccups. By then, his five minutes and mine were nearly over. Boris whispered into the man’s ear and he reluctantly detached himself from Boris’s side, scooped his clothes from the floor and walked out of view.
By chance, Boris glanced in my direction. His eyes brightened, but then the window dimmed to opaque again and he was gone.
I was unsteady on my feet when I stepped out of the booth. My heart beat out a riotous rhythm and my hands trembled. I felt so ashamed, and so deliciously insatiate. Even the sight or Kishore Ming wasn’t enough to immediately sober me.
“I was hoping I wouldn’t find you here.” My boss signaled for me to follow her.
According to Boris, he provides the type of love that all babies need but current social conditions have robbed from them. I wouldn’t know, with no memory with which to make the comparison. If I had to boil down all the emotions I felt when I was with Boris and give it a name, it would be sustenance.
I wanted to be Boris’s baby. I wanted to be more than Boris’s baby.
“On whose shoulder did you cry?” asked Boris as he loosened the many tiny plaits in my hair. I could barely keep my eyes open as he did this. We were in bed, me sitting between his legs. I leaned against his bare belly, the coarse hairs tickling my naked back.
“I don’t recall my life before orbital boarding school. I think I was eight. I have no recollection of my father nurturing me and I have no memory of my mother at all.”
Boris’s pulled his fingers through my hair, coaxing out the knots, and my stress. I closed my eyes, tried to remember and not to fall asleep.
“Orbital was equipped with a cuddle bot. It would say a few kind words and offer a pat on the head or back when I was distressed. This always made me feel somehow better, if not loved. But, we were taught not to cry.”
“A baby needs to cry.” The disapproval was heavy in Boris’s sweet voice. “A baby needs to feel love.” He swept his warm oily hands across my shoulders and back. “For a baby to thrive, it needs to feel warm flesh on flesh.”
He kneaded my scalp with rosemary oil until it tingled, and brushed my hair until I slept.
Ming Transports was only a few corridors away from Boris’s Bar. I followed Kishore Ming, but I refused to demonstrate the slightest contrition. When she offered me a seat in her office, I declined and stood stiffly against the wall.
She used her thumb to scroll through a document on a tablet. “Do you know why I asked you here?”
I shrugged. “I have a good idea.”
“In the last month you’ve only worked a total of seventy hours.”
I shrugged again.
Ming studied me, her face full of pity and resignation. She sighed. “Io is going to be home of the next colony in this system. Do you know how huge that is?”
“Of course I do.” The Io runs bring in the supplies needed to finish building the colony. Materials, food, and machinery.
“I could assign someone else to do the runs to Io, but few people have your experience. Three solitary months, in each direction, would destroy most people, but not you. You’ve proven your resilience and ability.” I felt as if I would cry. Could she not see how broken I was? “I need a functional runner. I’d like it to be you.”
“I’m not able.” I could barely hear my own voice. I’m not sure how she did. It was impossible for me to conceive of accepting a run that took me out of orbit for days, weeks, sometimes months at a time.
Ming’s jaws tightened. She flung the tablet onto the desk. “Your contract states—”
“I know what my contract says.”
Ming blew out an exasperated breath. “You have one month to comply with the standards of your contract or I’ll have to let you go. I’ve been lenient with you up till now, but I cannot abide an addict in my employ.”
If I lost my job with Ming Transports I’d lose my pod-flat, my travel pass, my permit to live at the Elysium Mons Colony. The stubbornness that kept my back straight left me like a breath and I sank into the chair.
Some people wanted to go back Earth-side, but not me. There was nothing on Earth for me. No family. No property. Everything I loved was here.
Boris was here.
During our time together, Boris confided, “It is the so-called intelligence of our previous generations, our hunger for competitive growth, our need to be everywhere, do everything at all costs, that created the need for me.
“I am compelled by a fundamental passion to supply the love so many have missed.”
Boris started his work on Earth and when he’d managed to accumulate the necessary funding, he moved his operation to Luna Colony. A few years after that, he moved to Elysium Mons. His goal was to touch the hearts of all in need across the system.
“We have traded our best and most basic human propensity for intelligence. But, there is nothing wiser than love.” Then Boris held me by my shoulders and looked me in the eyes and said, “I love you.”
And I believed him. Despite the inflated fee I’d paid for his services, I believed him. But it was not true.
Dr. Riz Miskal didn’t have lines of love hungry patrons waiting for him. He took his clients by appointment only and he never strayed from schedule. His purpose was the very antithesis of Boris’s.
Dr. Miskal stood by the viewport, his back rigid as the hull of a ship. He wore black and his hair was a sheet of inkiness that hung nearly to his knees. There was nothing comforting about him or his suite.
“You’ve reneged on our agreement by going to Boris’s. How do you expect to get well if you will not comply with the plan of care?”
I was supposed to stay away from Boris’s Bar, and I was supposed to see Dr. Miskal twice a week. It had been more than a month.
“Your employment with Ming Transports is contingent upon your continued visits with me.”
Dr. Miskal turned toward me. His face was a collection of glacial angles. His fair skin glowed against the rust slope of the resident volcano.
“Boris is dangerous. Do you know how many of his blunders I’ve had to correct?”
I shook my head.
“Let’s just say that I make my living off his errors, and his otherworldly effects. One cannot in good conscience prescribe love. It’s like setting fire to a room full of oxygen tanks. It’s apt to burn too hot and too fast until it is exhausted and wasted, much as you are.”
“He tried to give me hope,” I defended.
“And what hope is there to be had when your credits run dry? When you have lost your livelihood?”
I had no answer for that.
“The hope he supplies is a lie.”
Dr. Miskal sat down behind his desk and signaled for me to sit on the chair opposite from him. Our session was to begin.
“Repeat after me.” He steepled his fingers in front of his face. “Boris’s love isn’t real.”
After about the four hundredth recitation, I almost believed it was true, but I didn’t want to.
That night as I hovered in the twilight of sleep, it whispered into my hair, “I want you to feel like a baby,” just as Boris had months earlier. The inflection and tone was perfect, my programming flawless.
“If you take the run to Io, Kishore Ming will be pleased.”
“I don’t care,” I moaned.
“You’ll be able to afford another session with Boris.”
At the mention of Boris, I imagined the scent of patchouli.
Making the runs to Io would ensure I remained employed with Ming Transports, but seeing Boris again would ensure that I was terminated. There was no way to win this situation. For the moment, I chose to forget.
I squeezed my eyes closed and imagined Boris was cradled behind me, fingers floating over my skin until my core buzzed. I almost made it there, but not close enough.
I lay on the couch in Dr. Miskal’s office. I gazed out of the window at the rust dunes and crevices.
“The only thing more beautiful than Mars is the cold black of space. I actually miss the runs to Io, three months speeding through the void. But I am afraid to go now.”
“Are you afraid to be alone?”
“No. I like being alone.” I sat up and leaned forward with my elbows on my knees. “What I fear is the emptiness, that out there in the void it will be even more manifest than it is now.”
“You weren’t afraid of this before Boris. What has changed?”
“Before Boris I didn’t realize that I was empty. I had no idea.”
Dr. Miskal attempted a form of hypnosis. I was guided through my memories as far back as I could recall. He wanted me to describe a time in my life when I felt the most secure, the most loved.
I dreamed of Boris.
I stepped back to get a better look at it. I’d repaired its finger, applied a coat of tanning agent so that it sported a warm sun-kissed complexion, and gave it a haircut that accentuated its jaw and chin. When it opened its brown eyes I gasped.
It chuckled, like wet stone over stone, and reached for me. “Am I to understand by your reaction that you like what you see?”
I didn’t accept its hand. I admit that I was rather taken aback. I barely recognized it, but the dissimilarity was more than aesthetics. I’d also installed some new programming and the expressions on its face…amusement, confusion, adoration…played in such natural, honest progression that I was suddenly afraid.
Could it feel? And what did it feel for me?
“What’s wrong, Orani?” It lowered its hand and stepped forward, filling the space in front of me with a presence larger than its body. It frowned, dark eyes pleading. “Have I done something wrong?”
“No, but I hope I haven’t.” My fear became fascination.
“I thought you wanted this. Do you regret altering me?”
I held its gaze for too long. It wasn’t Boris, but that was fine. “What shall we call you? It will no longer do.”
I agreed to take the run to Capital Station, which marked the halfway point between Mars and Jupiter. I’d spend a total of fourteen weeks alone in the void. For the first time since Dr. Miskal started treating me, he indicated approval at my decision and my progress.
“You are demonstrating admirable courage,” he told me, though his eyes remained as angular slivers of slate in his pale face. Still, I believed him.
Whoever was responsible for managing his programming had come very close. Just a few more tweaks, just a tad more empathy…
For our first and only encounter, I paid for an entire weekend. When that time came to an end, I had such an attack of anxiety that Boris granted an extra two hours gratis.
“The purpose of these sessions is defeated if my departure leaves you in a state worse than when we began.”
Boris pulled me into his lap.
“Do you think that I have no feelings?”
I didn’t respond to his query. I waited for him to answer his own question.
“Boris feels too,” he proclaimed. He pulled me tighter against his body. “My goal is to have helped you. If I thought for a moment that my efforts were a hindrance, I would stop.” He leaned back to look into my face. “Do you want Boris to stop his work?”
I shook my head.
Even then, when I was captivated by Boris and desperate for every moment of his attention, I knew that regardless of my response, Boris would continue as he was.
Boris did not love me. Boris loved his mission, and its harm or merit hardly factored into his decision to continue.
Love is lucrative.
“What are you thinking about, my love?” River stood behind my chair and massaged my shoulders. “You seem distracted.”
I was distracted. I had been wondering if what I felt for River was really love, or some misdirected construct that was a remnant of what I still felt for Boris.
I also thought about the message I received from Enoch earlier that day. He spoke of many things including the fact that he wondered if leaving me had been a mistake. I didn’t have the answers and so I never replied.
I reached back for River’s hand and kissed it then told them what they wished to hear.
“Just thinking about how much I will miss your presence.”
“As am I.” River sat across the table from me, a wistful smile creasing their face. “But this is what you’ve wanted, to hear the nothingness of the void and to be of good use.”
This was true. But I was afraid. Fewer of my dreams were Boris-centric, but he still occupied so many of my waking thoughts. I managed three weeks away from his bar with the help of River who did their best to fill the emptiness within me. Despite this, I still wanted to go back to Boris’s Bar.
Even down to pathology, humanity is impossible to duplicate. This is Boris’s genius. This is why he will forever be relevant regardless of his objective.
“Your work is important. You’re no mere lead collar grunt. People like you are necessary to ensure that our distant travelers have supplies from back Earth-side.”
I didn’t need convincing, but I was pleased that River tried so hard.
“Are you certain you won’t change your mind? The run to Io is still available and I could get someone else to take your run to Central Station.” Kishore Ming chuckled when she said this but I knew just how serious she was.
When I declined, she dropped the subject. She was willing to accept this compromise. In the end she realized it was for the good of us all.
Hours later, once my final trajectory had been plotted, I settled down to rest. I lay naked in my bunk and used its built-in heating element to maintain comfort. My bunk sported the only view port on the entire ship, a half by half meter aperture that allowed a view to the black depths of space. For a long time, I just lay there, listening to the low hum of the ship engine, feeling it vibrate through my bones.
The only thing as comforting as the warm nudge of my ship is the embrace of Boris. That is the reason why I refused the run to Io.
I actually believe that I am now strong enough to make that run, even though it would likely be the most difficult task I would ever attempt in my life. I was prepared to try until I saw Calva.
I pulled the orange iridescent coin-sized disk from beneath my pillow and fingered its ridges. It was a gift from Calva before my departure.
She was leaving Dr. Miskal’s office just as I was arriving for my last visit. She was as beautiful as ever, but very much changed. She sobbed in my ear when we embraced, “I shall die without Boris.”
The loving nomad had already closed his bar and had left for Io a week earlier. I was shocked not to have heard the news. “He said he has yet more love to give, but what about me?”
For a moment, longer than a moment, in fact, even now, I find myself thinking the same thing.
What about me?
I asked for the run to Central Station. I will continue to ask for that run. And when they start building the station on Saturn’s Enceladus, I will be the first to volunteer for that run. But not Io. Not ever.
I slipped the disk into the slot at my feet and waited for the small black screen to rise from the alcove. I clapped the lights off.
“Tell Boris what is wrong.”